When I think of the first 12 or 13 years of the digital ad business, it now seems like the Jesse Pinkman era. For those of you who don’t follow BB, at the series’ outset Jesse was a small time meth cook and a legend in his own mind, tooling around town a chopped Monte Carlo with Captain Cook vanity plates. Jesse was all bluster and attitude, but in his own way he meant well. Enter Walter White, Jesse’s high school chemistry teacher, who brings ambition, urgency and massive amounts of science to the task. Suffice to say, within a very short time it’s an altogether different business. As is ours.
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For those who still plan to binge-view the series, no spoilers here. But the question for Walt and Jesse — and for us — is just what how much staying power and sustainability the new enterprise will ultimately enjoy. The Walter White era of online advertising has been built on a foundation of (a) an inconceivably massive volume of page views and ad calls, (b) just enough passable data to credibly inform ad decisions, (c) enough venture funding to spawn a score of solid decision engines, (d) cookies to link it all together and (e) advertising buyers willing to avoid the thorniest questions. I don’t know for sure if things get better or worse going forward: if you can find six people who agree what “better” or “worse” would be, send them my way. But I believe that at least some of these pillars will give way.
One plausible scenario is that the industry uses some of the wealth and momentum we enjoy to put our house in order. An issue like viewability — a huge share of our massive volume of page views going unseen or, worse, being generated fraudulently — is an embarrassing symptom. Our collective response to strictures on third-party cookies — “we’ll just do something else” — may be true, but it misses the point. And we can certainly demand deeper and better sources of meaningful consumer data instead of continuing to rely on warmed over observations and stale cookies.
I know there will be some who say I’m hatin’ on the biz. Not true. I love the innovation, the courage, the invention, the people…all of it. I just want to see it all devoted to building great businesses — and a great business — that will stand the test of time. We may not think we have anything in common with Walt and Jesse’s business, but remember that we both call our customers “users” and our business “traffic.” Maybe it’s time for a change.